Hur­ri­cane shows it’s time to deal with cli­mate change

San Antonio Express-News - - OTHER VIEWS - NICHOLAS KRISTOF

As Hur­ri­cane Michael ripped through homes and com­mu­ni­ties, we sent our sym­pa­thies to all those in its path, but let’s also re­view what some lead­ing Florida res­i­dents have said about cli­mate change.

“One of the most pre­pos­ter­ous hoaxes in the his­tory of the planet,” scoffed Rush Lim­baugh of Palm Beach. Gov. Rick Scott’s ad­min­is­tra­tion went so far as to bar some agen­cies from even us­ing the term “cli­mate change,” ac­cord­ing to the Florida Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing (Scott de­nied this).

My­opic Florid­i­ans have plenty of com­pany. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dis­missed cli­mate change as a hoax “cre­ated by and for the Chi­nese.” Sen. James In­hofe, R-Okla., “dis­proved” cli­mate change by tak­ing a snow­ball onto the Se­nate floor and not­ing that it was chilly out­side; us­ing sim­i­larly rig­or­ous sci­en­tific meth­ods, he wrote a book about cli­mate change called “The Great­est Hoax.”

Alas, deny­ing cli­mate change doesn’t ac­tu­ally pre­vent it. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 pro­hibit­ing the use of cli­mate sci­ence in cer­tain state plan­ning, yet that didn’t in­tim­i­date Hur­ri­cane Florence last month. And ban­ning the words “cli­mate change” isn’t help­ing Florida now.

Some folks will say this isn’t the mo­ment for pol­i­tics. But don’t we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to mit­i­gate the next disaster?

Con­sider that the three warm­est years on record are the last three. And that the 10 years of great­est loss of sea ice are all in the last dozen years.

It’s true that we can’t defini­tively link the dam­age from any one hur­ri­cane (or drought or forest fire) to ris­ing car­bon emis­sions. But think of it as play­ing with loaded dice: A dou­ble six might have oc­curred any­way, but much less of­ten.

“There is strong con­sen­sus among sci­en­tists who study hur­ri­canes and cli­mate that warm­ing tem­per­a­tures should make more in­tense hur­ri­canes pos­si­ble,” Kerry Emanuel, a hur­ri­cane ex­pert at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, told me. He said that the prob­a­bil­ity of Hur­ri­cane Florence-mag­ni­tude rains in North Carolina had roughly tripled since the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury.

Flood­ing ac­tu­ally causes more hur­ri­cane deaths than wind, and cli­mate change am­pli­fies flood­ing in two ways. First, it raises the base sea level, on top of which a tidal surge oc­curs. Sec­ond, warmer air holds more mois­ture — about 10 per­cent more so far — and that means more rain.

Pro­fes­sor Michael E. Mann of Penn State told me that Hur­ri­cane Michael should be a wakeup call. “As should have Ka­t­rina, Irene, Sandy, Har­vey, Irma, Florence,” he added wryly. “In each of th­ese storms we can see the im­pact of cli­mate change: Warmer seas means more en­ergy to in­ten­sify th­ese storms, more wind dam­age, big­ger storm surge and more coastal flood­ing.”

As re­cently as the early 2000s, there wasn’t much dif­fer­ence be­tween the par­ties on cli­mate pol­icy, and Sen. John McCain cam­paigned in 2008 as a leader in re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions. In 2009, Trump joined other busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives in back­ing more ac­tion to ad­dress cli­mate change.

Yet in the fol­low­ing years Al Gore helped make cli­mate change a Demo­cratic is­sue, and the Koch broth­ers helped make cli­mate de­nial a lit­mus test of Repub­li­can authen­tic­ity. Trib­al­ism took over, and cli­mate skep­ti­cism be­came part of the Repub­li­can creed.

Trump had noth­ing sub­stan­tive to say about a new U.N. re­port, which has been called a “deaf­en­ing, pierc­ing smoke alarm” of cat­a­strophic con­se­quences ahead from cli­mate change.

Repub­li­cans are cor­rect that all this is un­cer­tain. But in every other con­text, we try to pre­vent threats that are un­cer­tain, and it’s ir­ra­tional for Trump to be ob­sessed with, say, Iran, when he seems in­dif­fer­ent to the prospect that we are col­lec­tively cook­ing our en­tire planet.

There are le­git­i­mate de­bates about the best way to re­duce car­bon emis­sions, and there is rea­son for skep­ti­cism that we will suc­ceed. Car­bon taxes would have to be very sub­stan­tial to have a large im­pact, geo­engi­neer­ing is un­cer­tain, and there will be painful trade-offs ahead.

We also should curb the dys­func­tional Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram, which en­cour­ages peo­ple to live in low-ly­ing ar­eas. One Mis­sis­sippi home flooded 34 times in 32 years, re­sult­ing in pay­outs to­tal­ing al­most 10 times what the home was worth.

But we’re not even hav­ing th­ese de­bates.

Cli­mate change may be the most im­por­tant is­sue we face, re­shap­ing our chil­dren’s world. At some point, those call­ing “hoax” will fade away and we’ll reach a new con­sen­sus about the per­ils. But by then, it may be too late.

Dou­glas R. Clif­ford / As­so­ci­ated Press

Lee Cathey, 37, from left, Al Cathey, 71, and Charles Smith, 56, sur­vey dam­age in Mex­ico Beach, Fla., which lay dev­as­tated on Thurs­day af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael made land­fall on Wed­nes­day in the Florida Pan­han­dle. Cli­mate change left unchecked means more such dis­as­ters are ahead.

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